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The Real Lesson Of The Monica Lewinsky Scandal

Monica Lewinsky has penned a new piece about her relationship with President Clinton. This has Steve Almond thinking about the use and abuse of the former White House intern -- and what it says about us. In this image taken from video, Lewinsky (wearing beret) smiles at Clinton as he greets well-wishers at a White House lawn party in Washington Nov. 6, 1996. (AP)
Monica Lewinsky has penned a new piece about her relationship with President Clinton. This has Steve Almond thinking about the use and abuse of the former White House intern -- and what it says about us. In this image taken from video, Lewinsky (wearing beret) smiles at Clinton as he greets well-wishers at a White House lawn party in Washington Nov. 6, 1996. (AP)
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So Monica Lewinsky has written a piece for Vanity Fair in which she expresses regret over her affair with President Bill Clinton and points out, quite rightly, that she was made into a scapegoat.

My feelings about Lewinsky are essentially sympathetic. She got involved with a powerful older man and wound up tossed aside, and branded for life.

What interests me is the way she and her story were used back then, and the way she is being used now (including by me) — the way she will always be used.

This is not to suggest that Lewinsky didn’t have her own motives. She got involved with President Bill Clinton because she wanted to be involved with President Bill Clinton.

this is America, where any act of sexual impropriety among the famous immediately becomes a valued commodity.

In a more mature democracy, the two of them would have conducted their affair in private, as they intended — and as numerous earlier presidents have. They would have had to answer only to their own consciences, and, in Clinton’s case, perhaps to his wife and family.

But this is America, where any act of sexual impropriety among the famous immediately becomes a valued commodity.

And so began the uses of Monica Lewinsky.

Linda Tripp (an alleged friend who secretly taped her phone calls) used Lewinsky to further her own aggrieved personal agenda.

Republicans such as Newt Gingrich (himself a serial adulterer) used Lewinsky to vilify Clinton and derail his political ambitions.

Fox News used Lewinsky to help bolster a network entirely devoted to demonizing the Democratic Party.

The rest of the media used Lewinsky to enlarge their profits.

Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr used Lewinsky to generate one of the most absurd and prurient legal “reports” off all time.

In the years since Lewinsky disappeared from public life, various employees have used Lewinsky, or attempted to use her, as publicity bait for their businesses.

(Mark Seliger/ Vanity Fair)
(Mark Seliger/ Vanity Fair)

Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that Lewinsky has spent most of her adult life using her own notoriety to build what might be charitably termed “a career.”

She sold upscale handbags then became a shill for a weight-loss company then became a TV celebrity of sorts. In 2003, she took a gig hosting a show called “Mr. Personality,” in which — I swear I am not making this up — she dispensed advice to young female contestants who were asked to choose a date from among a group of men, all of whom were wearing masks.

And now Vanity Fair — I will not be linking to the magazine — has cranked up the whole racket once again. They are using Lewinsky to generate publicity. I and other commentators are using her as a pretext to write additional pieces.

She is using her infamy to squeeze a little more spotlight out of her famous and mostly sad affair.

Americans would rather gawk at the transgressions of others than reflect upon our own sins and civic circumstance.

The right-wing media — forever desperate to impugn Hillary Clinton, especially now that she appears poised to run for president — will use Lewinsky to make some twisted set of arguments about the inherent moral corruption of “The Clintons.” You can set your watch by that.

Lost in all this is the real lesson of the Lewinsky scandal: that Americans would rather gawk at the transgressions of others than reflect upon our own sins and civic circumstance.

In the years since we started using Monica Lewinsky, our media has become increasingly sensational (and therefore negligent of actual policy), our political class has become more cynical, and we, as a people, have happily traded more and more of our own privacy away for coupons and fleeting moments of regard.

But the looming truth is pretty simple: our democracy has important decisions to make in the months and years ahead. None of them involve Monica Lewinsky.


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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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